The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons



After long and attentive observation of an object, one begins to feel the need of viewing it against its proper background. The formal measurements of the thing itself must be expressed in relative dimensions to make it part of the reality of the world.

To one who with unprejudiced mind re-experiences vengeance as it was, re-experiences honour as a motive power among men, brutal and sublime as it really was; to him our forefathers will appear with new life. They will begin to live and move, awakening in the observer a sympathy far removed from the idealism wherewith a modern age ennobles its poetical or political idées fixes; and if we could attain to see these men, whose life in honour and luck we have learned to know, as a part of the world, and to regard luck as part and parcel of men's ideas of life in general, the reality of men and their luck would be enhanced.

Middle-garth — Anglo-Saxon Middan-geard, Old Icelandic Miðgarðr -- was the name given to the world men live in, and it extends far out on every side. Farthest out, where the heavens merge into one with the earth men tread, or the sea they fish in, there are the boundaries of this world of men. The way thither is a longer one than the stay-at-home generally believes. One may walk or sail day after day, five days, or even more perhaps, before reaching the mountains that shut men in, or the deep hole where the waters pour down.

Out there, at the boundary of Middle-garth, is the meeting


place of ways from below and from above. One of them bends steeply back, but whither it leads we can never rightly learn. It would seem that none has ever passed that way. For the bridge — the rainbow — now called Bifrost, now Bilrost, stands all aflame—its colours may be seen glowing from afar and is impassable to all save those who can move unscathed through fire. But we take it that it leads to some higher land, above the heads of men dwelling in Middle-garth.

On the other side, a way leads down into the third world, that which extends both outward from and in under Middle-garth; the road lies through deep, dark valleys, filled with the roar of icy, foaming torrents. It is clammy and resounding in the depths, but the ground is firm; the path will bear a mortal as well as dead men, and is so often travelled that there is no need to be ignorant as to whither it leads, and what is to be found at the journey's end.

This third world is, as far as we know, of endless extent. There is nothing to hinder a bold adventurer, from forcing his 'way ahead in the land that spreads out from Middle-garth. and down into the frosty depth, as long as he trusts his own courage to face the unknown, trusts his own strength and wit to clear a way through perils and difficulties and temptations all unlike those known on earth. He will need to be a strong man, for strength here is measured by a far higher standard — and withal, however great his strength, it will only avail him in lesser things; the rest he must win through by craft and mother wit. Even here, however, the normal human quota of wit will not suffice; for all that he sees is of alien nature now; he needs to be a great guesser.

They are hardly many who venture so far afield, and some of those adventurers whom nothing affrights will doubtless never return. But there were always enough of those who did to give an eye-witness description of Utgard, or Out-garth, as this world is called in the North.

These eye-witnesses told that when the boundary of Middle-garth was passed, the light which shines upon the earth disappeared. Daylight gives place to a gloaming, with errant


gleams of light that dazzle and confuse without banishing the darkness. The road leads over damp, rimy hills, where icy winds come sweeping down; through rivers turbulent with venom and with swords. Round about sit monsters, creatures. neither man nor beast, with eyes aglare. Their glance darts forth an uncanny light, like a flame; their jaws emit dense clouds of acrid breath, fierce enough to singe the hair of a man's head and blind his eyes. And their claws are fleshed in carrion where they sit. Farthest out is the haunt — so it is said, for none would seem to have reached so far — of the giant eagle Hræsvelgr, the devourer of the dead; when he rises from one corpse to swoop upon another, his pinions raise so violent a storm as to sweep in upon earth itself.

All is horrible, ill-boding, uncanny; pregnant with deception for eyes accustomed only to human dimensions. The quasi-human forms that move there in the mist and gloom are so immense as to be hardly recognised as living till it is too late. What seems perhaps a ravine may prove to be the entrance of a house, with a giant's legs bestriding the valley midway. Inside the cave, his womenfolk sit tending a fire, grey, lank-haired, in a pose that reveals the ugliness of every limb. The streams a wanderer has to pass are of another character than the waters of Middle-garth; stepping out into them, he finds them rising about him, things living and hostile of mind. And so it is with everything there, all is instinct with an alien will. Nothing is what it seems. All is dazzlement and illusion. Things seeming dead turn living at a touch.

Only a genius of luck, able not only to edge and wind its way, but also to discern the hidden qualities of what it meets, and face it with a cunning of its own unearthly wise; only this can avail to bring one safely through.

Such is the Northmen's account of their Utgard. Farther south, in Denmark and Sweden, where the hills and the mountains gave place to broad fields and all but impenetrable woods, the world must have had a different guise. I can imagine that in some places, it might be compared to a vast clearing, with darkness rising all about in trunk and branch, interwoven to


a dense wall. Beyond is the place where outlaws prowl about with the wolves for company. There too is mist and gloom. And there are paths that are no roads, being otherwise than those trodden by the feet of men. Great marsh-waters are there, under forests of enchantment and unease. Storms rise from the lakes, when the wind lifts the waters and flings them as boding clouds over the earth, darkening the day. In Jarnvidr, the forest of iron, dwell the misshapen she-giants with their spawn; creatures with nose and claw as sharp as swords, and as keen to rend human flesh. Brood on brood the creatures bear, wolves and ogres together. In the marshy gloom, where every branch is an iron claw that snaps at him who passes, a man may stumble blindly, till he finds his end as food for some foul beast. Cattle straying there return with the marks of having been breathed upon, and are fit for nothing thereafter.

One might guess at a third conception of Middle-garth prevailing, perhaps, on the broad plains whose boundaries were formed by earth and sky closing directly in. The story of Hading and his visit to the underworld, as retold by Saxo, may perhaps have come from a land where the walls of the world were formed by the horizon. A man would then go — as many have gone at other times — through the verge of the heavens as through a dense, dark cloud, a solid mass of blackness, and emerge into a land of wide-spreading plains, where all was good and pleasant to the eye. But if nothing here showed fearsome and ill-omened, it was only that the peril was more deeply hid. Common to all things of the underworld is this quality of the incalculable, confusing eye and ear. A branch turns to a serpent as one grasps it, and strikes one dead. There are creatures that can twist the neck of a stranger by a mere glance. Fruits and fluids have power to maze a man's wits. There is no knowing the nature of things, so as to avert ill consequences by counter measures.

Sharply contrasted with the dread of this outland world is the delight in Middle-garth. Here, men look out over the fields with gladness in their eyes. We read, in the Beowulf, of the world of men: “One who knew of far-off things happening in


the early times of men, he said, that the Almighty had made the earth, the beauteous fields, encircled by waters; the victorious God had set sun and moon for a light to lighten the people of the land, and decked the lap of earth with branches and leaves,” in contrast to the domain of monsters, where steep cliffs leave but room between for a single man to pick his way, where unknown roads lead down over sheer precipices, the haunt of trolls; a joyless forest growth hangs over the grey rock; strange serpents move in the waters, and trolls lie stretched upon the headlands. These pictures in the Beowulf illustrate the Germanic contrast between land and unland. In this connection, it matters little that the poet characterises the “land” in alien words, and glorifies its mildness by describing it as founded in the will of a god beyond its bounds, beautified by the reflection of his creative will, we are here only concerned with the categorical distinction: the one place is waste, the home of evil and unluck, the other the dwelling of the host of the people, living in luck, in frith, in honour. In place of the Anglo-Saxon poet's “fair fields and bright” we may set, quite simply, the Northmen's soberer term fjölnýt fold, “the much-useful earth”. Of that other region, we read that even the hart pursued by hounds in the forest yields up its life rather than venture out into that water; for the place was not heore. We may as well leave the old word as it stands, for whatever modern substitute we choose would need a load of explanation to give its proper weight. The word heore, modern German geheuer, old Icelandic hýrr, means that which is mild, gentle, pleasant, safe; and the opposite unheore, úhýrr is — not merely something harsh and unpleasant, but — the uncanny, ill-boding; a place, a state, an atmosphere lacking in all that human beings need in order to live; it is the luckless air that stifles them. Heore, in other words, is “lucky” in the old sense, and what more need be said? Yonder place is unheore; this place, the dwelling of men, is the joyful site of their home. The forest that hangs over the marsh is called joyless, void of that delight which is the distinguishing mark of human life.

Strangely enough, it might seem. For there was no lack


of things uncanny here in Middle-garth. Witch-folk and witchcraft made themselves felt often enough. In the midst of the fair earth, in its most joyous life, the greatest and fairest of all kingly halls, where rejoicing rang loudest, among the bravest of men, the greatest lovers of life and scorners of death,— here, one day, is thrust in the unheore in the shape of Grendel. Here is witchery, devilment, all that brave men fear before all else; death in dishonour, in craven terror, in loathsomeness; to wit, without fight or burial.

The ancients are right in their way when they declare that the world is great, that a man must travel night and day to reach the bourne of death and enchantment itself; but they know, too, that these frontier powers are well able to reach over into this world itself at times. Most peoples have their Hell-farers, who ventured so far as to be swallowed up in the land of the giants, returning after to their own as from a strange land; the Northmen were hardly the only Germanic people to relate such journeyings of adventure. But the stories derive their interest, and their reality, from everyday experience. A man might learn the quality of yonder “unland” but a league or so from his home; and the very fact that every listener must have had some experience of uncanny powers, enabled him to appreciate the verisimilitude of the explorer's sober narrative.

It needs more than simple imagination to place oneself in the ancient world and feel at home there, with its Middle-garth as the centre of the universe. We cannot reconstruct a picture from the facts at our disposal, as the numerous abortive attempts to chart the Northmen's cosmos prove. True, the giants lived beyond the horizon — but how are we to make this agree with their stealing about at nights outside men's doors? Middle-garth is properly only the world of day; once the sun has set, and men have withdrawn into their houses, the earth is given over to things harsh and wild. In reality, earth is not the same by night as by day, any more than is a man of unluck, who goes about in the daytime with a human countenance, seemingly like his fellows, but steals forth at night in the pelt of a wolf and runs ravening abroad. All the unheore that by day is held


fettered and bound by the light, rises up as the sun grows faint, to stride forth in its giant power. “All dead ones of illwill grow stronger by night than in the light of day”. We may perhaps try to clear the tangle and uphold the system by holding on to the idea of the world as stratified; Utgard — I use this late Icelandic name for want of a better, since words such as “desert”, “wilderness”, “realm of death” each denote but one side of the unknown — Utgard extends, as we know, under the earth, and can shoot up into it through innumerable openings at any time. Here and there in the middle of the fair fields are gateways leading down into the home of monsters. It was perhaps through one such way of entry that this or that bold venturer penetrated to the innermost region of the realm of death; one could at least get as far that way as by the long way round through the horizon. But this home of giants under our feet is not a province of the main land out beyond the horizon. Can one go down into the earth and then home round by the frontiers of earth — who can say? No one denies it, for no one has declared it to be so. If the question were put, it would certainly be answered in the affirmative; but that affirmative is born of the thoughts the problem calls forth, not given of itself beforehand. The cave in the earth is Utgard itself, identical with the place beyond the horizon. And the lair of monsters does not owe its existence to any subterranean communication with a world below. The ancient view of the world will not fit in with our geographical maps, in which the different countries lie neatly side by side with linear frontiers, because the ancient world was not measured with the eyes solely as a mere external plane without depth.

It needs something more than imagination and something more than constructive power to place Middle-garth and Utgard in their due relation one to the other. Re-experience is needed. We have to build up the world anew, without regard to all we have learned, irrespective of atlas and topography. With us, the world is formed by setting observations in their place according to measuring tape and compass, but if we are to build up Middle-garth and Utgard as well, then we must take

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